Devotees of crime and film noir will get a kick out of this Brit attempt to capture the American style, that now comes off as screamingly funny. It was both a huge hit and a big scandal in London, 1948, where the censors came down hard on the film’s flagrant immorality and over-the-top violence. Former pre-Code second-banana thug Jack La Rue tries hard to be Humphrey Bogart. Leading lady Linden Travers’ role is as non-PC now as it was then: an heiress falls in love with the gangster, who has raped her, because she likes it. But the film’s maladroit hardboiled dialogue is hilarious fun.
No Orchids for Miss Blandish
KL Studio Classics
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 103 min. / Street Date March 20, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jack La Rue, Hugh McDermott, Linden Travers, Walter Crisham, MacDonald Parke, Danny Green, Lilli Molnar, Charles Goldner, Zoë Gail, Leslie Bradley, Richard Nielson, Michael Balfour, Frances Marsden, Sydney James.
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Film Editor: Manuel del Campo
Original Music: George Melachrino
From the novel by James Hadley Chase
Written, Produced and Directed by St. John L. Clowes
Kino presents a sparkling new transfer of one of the weirdest crime films of the 1940s. It was noted in the Hardy Encyclopedia of the Crime Film as being widely banned and condemned in the House of Commons, yet was ‘seen by over 100,000 people in its first three weeks at London’s Plaza Cinema.’ The censors got their knuckles rapped, and issued an apology!
Oddball movies don’t come any stranger than this one, not by a long shot. Everyone knows that the violent and gory Hammer horror films outraged the English censors in the late 1950s, but a similar wave of condemnation had already occurred ten years before. A rash of postwar crime films dragged the country’s cultural watchdogs into a new era of sex and violence. England couldn’t halt a flood of movies about spivs (criminal punks) that contradicted the country’s official self-image. Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock became a red-hot thriller about a vicious scar-faced spiv, played by a young Richard Attenborough. The descent of a juvenile (Diana Dors) into degradation is the sordid subject of Good Time Girl. The morally murky It Always Rains on Sunday deals with sexual betrayal and small-time crime in a Jewish district. Although efforts were made to ban some of these films outright (as with the later Cosh Boy, said to glorify razor-slashing young thugs) producers followed the American example and exploited the outrage for added publicity value.
The notorious No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) is a difficult-to-describe B&W independent produced, written and directed by one St. John Legh Clowes. Its source is a book and stage play markedly similar to the notorious 1933 American movie The Story of Temple Drake, itself an adaptation of William Faulkner’s story Sanctuary. Temple Drake is one of the key films that precipitated the enforcement of the Production Code. In both stories, an heiress seduced (or raped) by a kidnapper falls in love with him and turns her back on her family and upbringing. Heightening the connection is the fact that minor leading man Jack La Rue plays the rapacious male lead in both films, spaced fifteen years apart.
Original reaction to the English movie was unqualified outrage. An Archbishop spoke against it from his pulpit. The Observer said that “It has all the morals of an alley cat and the sweetness of a sewer.” The Monthly Film Bulletin called it “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen.” The movie was a rave success when released in London, yet has reportedly never been shown on English television.
No Orchids wastes no time wading into salacious waters. The beautiful but frigid socialite Miss Blandish (Linden Travers of The Lady Vanishes) isn’t happy about her family-approved engagement to a worthless man from a good family. Punk crooks intercept the couple on the way to a ‘hot’ road house. They only have simple theft in mind, but the unstable Riley (Richard Nielson) loses control and murders the fiancé. More killings follow. Crook Ted Bailey (Leslie Bradley, later of Attack of the Crab Monsters) drags Blandish to an isolated shack, but before he can rape his captive, the Grisson Gang moves in. Enigmatic leader Slim Grisson (Jack La Rue) has admired Blandish from afar, and even sent her orchids. He murders Bailey and imprisons Blandish in the upstairs rooms of Grisson’s Black Dice nightclub, yet the heiress falls madly in love with him. Slim’s cohorts are angered when he returns Blandish’s diamonds to her father, along with her handwritten note saying that she’s run away of her own free will.
The police close the case, but Bailey’s stripper girlfriend Anna (Frances Marsden) suspects foul play. Grisson henchman Eddie (Walter Crisham) cozies up to Anna to keep her quiet, while conspiring with the rest of the gang to force Slim to demand a ransom. That’s when the two-fisted reporter Dave Fenner (Hugh McDermott of Devil Girl from Mars) steps in: he connects the Grissons to the original kidnapping and sets out to prove that Miss Blandish is indeed a prisoner. Now behaving like star-crossed lovers, Blandish and Slim can’t prevent a mutiny among the rest of the gang.
Some films date badly because of changing dramatic conventions. No Orchids for Miss Blandish may take the prize for a well-made picture that seemingly gets everything dead wrong. Yet it is a delight to watch. Time has transformed its once-shocking subject matter into an Airplane!– like parody of gangster and noir clichés. The surface action revels in tawdry cheap thrills: death is dished out by blackjack, broken glass, guns, a machine gun and even a hand grenade. The forbidden romance is preposterous. Miss Blandish (she isn’t given a first name) speaks in posh tones and swoons in shock at the prospect of rape by any of a half-dozen slimy gangsters. Not much later she’s sharing long, passionate kisses with Slim: “I know you’ve killed people. You’re cold, you’re hard, you’re ruthless — but …”
Ain’t love grand? They talk like that through the whole picture.
No Orchids inhabits an alternate gangland universe. Made in London and starring a mostly English cast, the movie is a riot of misconceptions about a fantasy gangland USA. The overcooked American slang comes from twenty years of gangster parodies: “You crazy rat you croaked him!” Few of the characters seem to belong in the same movie. Walter Crisham’s loathsome Eddie (just above) sneers at all times, as if he were the gangster father of our childhood pal Eddie Haskell.
Accents are all over the place. Barney the hillbilly (Michael Balfour) speaks with a cockney accent, while the sneering hood Riley does a spot-on imitation of a Dead End Kid. A mob doctor (MacDonald Parke) looks like a cross between John McGiver and Elmer Fudd. He struggles with high-toned dialogue that replaces words like ‘walk’ with ‘perambulate.’ Slick villain Eddie takes orders from the unpleasant Ma Grisson (Lily Molnar), a tough-talking Ma Barker clone. Ebullient headwaiter-chef Louis (Charles Goldner) delights in serving French delicacies to Slim and Blandish, even when Slim shouts that he just wants a ham on rye.
American actor Jack La Rue was a regular Hollywood villain in the pre-Code days, often portrayed as an oily degenerate. Fifteen years later he tries to redefine himself as a romantic figure, playing Slim somewhere between George Raft and Humphrey Bogart. Slim’s signature habit? He constantly rolls a sinister pair of black dice. La Rue has a killer dead-eye stare but not a lot of charisma, and generates zero chemistry with the swanky, bloodless Linden Travers. She seems to be addressing her refined dialogue to some other Prince Charming just out of camera view. Miss Blandish is supposedly transported into ecstasies of erotic abandon, but Travers never gets her hair mussed.
The film’s skewed view of America is that all personal interaction is about money or power. Even Blandish’s father and the police representative threaten each other. Numerous discussions end with somebody being slapped around, as if author Clowes’ only reference to America was James Cagney movies. Fenner knocks Eddie unconscious with just a slap on the cheek! The sight of the tubby Ma Grisson repeatedly slapping someone she just met is hilarious.
The attempt to imitate Hollywood-style gunplay is equally funny: Slim repeatedly out-draws assailants that plainly have the drop on him. The gun-toting Dave Fenner behaves more like James Bond than an investigative reporter. Despite the fact that the building is crawling with hoods, Fenner climbs into the window of the Grisson Club’s lead singer Margo (Zoë Gail) when she’s undressing for bed, and holds a gun on her. Fenner whips the drawstring from Margo’s pajamas so she has to hold her pants up for the rest of the scene. She’s apparently excited by this bullying seduction. In a subsequent absurd assassination set in a tiny shack, Slim rakes Fenner with machine gun bullets and then has his henchman finish him off with a grenade. A minute or two later, we learn that Fenner has escaped unscathed.
Writer-director St. John Legh Clowes’ direction never finds a believable tone, especially his love scenes. He does make good use of his moving camera, although Gerald Gibb’s cinematography mostly has a high-key, MGM look. A showdown in Barney’s shack shows Slim tossing his signature black dice, his body neatly framing the gangland action behind him. George Melachrino’s music score favors wince-inducing stings (Ba Da Da DUMMMM!) and contributes a lush romantic theme for the two crazy lovers, adding to the general tone of giddy awkwardness. Not helping is the over-populated cast, with some actors looking too much like others. I thought that the club singer and Anna were the same character. After a while it seemed strange that ‘her’ hairstyle kept changing. Then both women showed up in the same scene, and I lost track of them completely.
What turns No Orchids into irresistible Camp is Clowes’ inability to make any of these elements cohere: the film bounces from absurd violence to mawkish melodrama to lengthy musical performances. Even then it goes too far — a sleek floor show song is about getting rid of an unwanted sweetheart. With the wildly uneven screenplay and direction, and the bizarre accents and goofy characterizations, No Orchids for Miss Blandish comes off as preposterous. Yet it is still both exciting and funny. Something outrageous is happening every minute.
Keener eyes for Brit talent will recognize Danny Green (The Ladykillers) as the Grisson’s main thug. Working un-billed as the club doorman is future Bond baddie Walter Gotell. In a much larger un-billed role, Sidney James suffers as a bartender dealt a traumatic eye injury by the vicious Riley.
One reason this show attracts serious critical attention is that Robert Aldrich directed a version of the story in The Grissom Gang, with more of a rural ‘Ma Barker’ spin. The general story is almost identical, with the same strange romance in the middle of a kidnap scheme, framed by a string of callous killings. Some reviewers think highly of it. I can imagine both versions being PC poison today, when the notion of a kidnap / rape victim falling in love with her rapist would likely inspire an extremely unpleasant media reaction.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of No Orchids for Miss Blandish is an excellent new transfer from ‘Euro London Films Ltd.’ With the exception of a scratch here and there, it’s in near-perfect shape. The audio is quite healthy as well.
This transfer is a major step up from anything I’ve seen before, which is the good news. But I’m keeping my old (2010) VCI disc for its interview extras — one conducted by Tom Weaver with American importer Richard Gordon, and another with actor Richard Nielson. Kino’s disc offers only a trailer, atop a stack of other noir trailers. It also has no English subtitles.
The critics that study Brit Noir usually label No Orchids as notable but not particularly important. The show’s real fame was made when it shocked the snooty English culture watchdogs of 1948. Although handsomely produced, it’s derivative and awkward, and in terms of quality doesn’t bear comparison to its more accomplished contemporaries.
I don’t feel guilty for saying that its main appeal is as an unintentional comedy. Even the final shot, with a white orchid lying on the New York sidewalk, is grossly overdone — every pedestrian that passes steps on it! For viewers that have overdosed on self-important, sober noir classics, it’s a very pleasant diversion — and also makes one appreciate the taste and judgment of more successful moviemakers.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
No Orchids for Miss Blandish
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2018
From a Savant Column from 2010: “No Orchids for Miss Blandish was re-premiered at the TCMfest back in May. After a short break we drifted over to see the bizarre Brit Noir thriller, which was a packed sell-out. The one festival title so far that I had never seen, this was the most rewarding show of the evening because I got to meet in person some people I’d only known from afar through DVD or reviewing work, such as Kino’s talented writer-producer Bret Wood. Distributor Bruce Goldstein’s opening speech was a nicely paced and funny overview of the movie, in which a mostly English cast all play cornball New York mobsters. Then actor Tim Roth took the microphone and delivered his own humor-filled introduction, apologizing for the fact that the English didn’t get noir right but assuring the audience that they love Yank crime pix. Roth described a gruesome scene that was missing from the archival 35mm print that screened. It must have been censored, as a character shows up at one point, apparently with his eye gouged out! Since Tim Roth mentioned the missing violent scene, it’ll probably be included on the expected DVD. No Orchids was a scandal in England because of what in 1948 was racy and violent content. To us it played as an over-the-top, hammy sleaze fest. The tin-ear stab at hardboiled dialogue is also a scream.” — April 24, 2010.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson